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Jon Bernstein: Sorry Guido, the BBC did for Duncan

Three high-profile political figures mired in controversy, two thrown out of their jobs, one suffering a humiliating demotion – all thanks to internet activists of differing political hues from green to darkest blue.

Hang your heads in shame video-sting victim Alan Duncan, and Smeargate’s Derek Draper and Damian McBride. Take a bow Tim Montgomerie, Guido Fawkes, and Heydon Prowse.

But was it really the web wot done it? I’m not so sure.

Or at least I don’t think the web could have done it without the traditional media, television news and newspapers in particular.

Clearly this is at odds with Guido’s reading of the situation.

Writing on his blog this morning yesterday Paul Staines (for it is he) asks who forced Alan Duncan from his role as shadow leader of the House of Commons.

Not Tory leader David Cameron, that’s for sure. Rather it was the unlikely pairing of Tim Montgomerie and Heydon Prowse, ‘the blogosphere’s shepherd of the Tory grassroots and the angry young man with a video-cam’.

Of Prowse, who filmed Duncan on the terrace talking of ‘rations’ in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, Guido notes:

“Heydon Prowse, who is he? He just destroyed the career of a greasy pole climbing Westminster slitherer. No house-trained political nous, no insight, in fact a little naive. He still did it.”

And Guido is in no doubt what this means in the wider context:

“The news is now disintermediated.”

The same applies, apparently, to the sacking of Damian McBride and Derek Draper, both prime ministerial advisors in their time. McBride and Draper were outed for their parts in a plot to use a pseudo-activist blog to spread rumours about various high-profile Tories.

The emails incriminating the two men found their way to Guido/Staines, and were in turn picked up by the media.

(Ironically, the site was meant to be the left’s answer to right-wing blogosphere attack-dogs, Guido among them.)

This week saw the story take another twist. Would-be smear victim Nadine Dorries MP carried out a threat to sue Draper and McBride and enlisted the help of Guido and fellow blogger Tory Bear to be servers of writs.

No one is doubting the origin of both stories, nor the journalistic craft in exposing the men at the heart of them. But it took the mainstream media to push these events into the public consciousness, into the mainstream.

And it took the attentions of the mainstream media to effect the sackings and demotion.

On the day it broke, the Duncan story led the BBC 10 o’clock News and featured prominently on other channels. In the ensuing 48 hours it spawned dozens of national press stories – the Daily Star went for ‘Dumb and Duncan’, The Mirror for ‘Duncan Donut’, others were more po-faced – as well as leader comments, opinion pieces and letters.

The coverage continued into the weekend and despite Duncan’s very swift apology and Cameron’s initial willingness to draw a line under events (“Alan made a bad mistake. He has acknowledged that, he has apologised and withdrawn the remarks.”) the drip, drip of media focus eventually forced the Tory leader to act.

It was a similar pattern with Smeargate.

Would PM Gordon Brown and Cameron have acted if these had remained just web stories? Not in 2009.

Is the news disintermediated? Not yet. Instead we have a symbiotic – if dysfunctional – relationship between the blogosphere and the traditional media.

The latter fears and dismisses the former in equal measure, but increasingly relies on it to take the temperature of various constituent parts of society and, yes, to source stories. Guido is such a good conduit through which to leak precisely because the media reads him.

The former, meanwhile, is disparaging about the latter (sometimes for good reason) but nonetheless needs it to vindicate its journalistic endeavours.

A final twist to the Alan Duncan story. Heydon Prowse offered Guido first refusal on his secret video recording back in June. Guido turned it down. “D’oh!” he later wrote in a confessional blog post.

Guido always has the good grace to admit when he’s goofed, as he did earlier this year over James Purnell’s fictitious leadership bid.

Will he accept with equally good grace that the mainstream media were a vital ingredient in the sackings and demotion of McBride, Draper and Duncan?

Jon Bernstein is former multimedia editor of Channel 4 News. This is part of a series of regular columns for Journalism.co.uk. You can read his personal blog at jonbernstein.wordpress.com.

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  • [You need to get a sub-editor. Not so easy to blog without a safety net?]

    On the substance of your post: by disintermediation I mean that the old media gatekeepers of yore no longer define what is news. Dan Hannan’s new found fame was because the blogs loved his speech, a speech that was consciously ignored by old media. The broadcasters knew of the speech because they were there watching Gordon get lacerated. They decided it wasn’t news.

    I thought differently, as did Iain Dale, Tim Montgomerie and the rest of the blogosphere. Drudge’s London stringer picked it up from us. His YouTube video became an internet sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Dan is now a darling of Fox News and has become the bete noire of the Labour Party.

    All the rest of the broadcasters had to follow in our wake, overturning their conscious editorial choice.

    We make the news as well. The monopoly held by old media gatekeepers is broken. To some extent I look on broadcast news and the newspapers as marketing conduits and a lucrative market for my stories.

    Heydon was the source for that Duncan story, he marketed it (to me, doh! admitted) and to the Standard who frontpaged it. He has raised his profile and taken a scalp. Once again, the old media was used for distribution not origination. Of course the old media lives, broadcasters in particular still have mass market reach.

    Increasingly old media parasitically leeches off new media sources. The ecology of the media has fundamentally changed.

  • Your argument has spooky echoes of my blogpost [http://tinyurl.com/nnqd3f] on this very issue yesterday – but with the key exception that you make absolutely no mention of the Evening Standard.
    Were you aware that the reason the broadcasters went so big was because we splashed it that morning?
    Guido himself has accepted “with good grace” that the old media (including the Standard) have a key role and generously linked to my post.
    I would disagree, however, with his wider claim that we are mere distributors rather than originators.

  • Some days you are, some days you ain’t.

  • Paul, you’re right. I should have mentioned the Evening Standard’s role in the story. I used the BBC to make the point that big, national media carry the biggest weight, influence and capacity to disseminate. And none is bigger than the BBC.

    (By the way, I filed this piece yesterday morning…)

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